Walking the streets of Villavicencio in her stark white garb, Sister Nohemy Palencia stands out like a lighthouse in a storm. My mind wanders to thoughts of hooded, well-armed men in jeeps, and I wonder if I should be guarding the good sister or if she is guarding me. It is a hot, early February evening in this city, which is situated where the plains begin, south and a little east of Bogota. We stop to eat in an open-air restaurant and Nohemy tells me about her peace-and-justice work and social pastoral ministry for the Villavicencio diocese.
She appears to be a strong, stoic woman, her serious face graced now and then by a warm playful smile. Beneath the placid exterior, I sense that her soul flames with the zeal of a revolutionary. Yet her most fiery pronouncement concerning her work with the poor and oppressed is: "I have learned how to understand the passion of Christ much better."
For the past six years, much of her work has been with victims of violence and the displaced. There is no dearth of either. Colombia, a country of 32 million people, has the highest homicide rate in the world. Political violence is the leading cause of death. Eleven people lose their lives each day due to politically motivated violence, according to the Andean Commission of Jurists. About 75 percent of these killings are committed by state agents and paramilitary squads aligned with the state or druglords, the other 25 percent by guerrilla groups. Although some would argue that the human rights situation in Colombia is slowly improving, the overall murder rate increased for the second year in a row. Bogota's leading newspaper, El Tiempo, cited 15,000 murders for the first six months of 1993, compared to 11,000 for the same period the year before.
About 600,000 rural Colombians have been displaced in the past three years, estimates CINEP, a Jesuit-run research institute based in Bogota. Many more have fled to Ecuador. Nohemy, working with a priest from Germany, two nuns from Canada and local laypeople, has assisted about 250 displaced families in the Villavicencio area, providing education, health services, job training and support. She has also organized a local human rights committee that offers workshops on legal lights, investigates human rights abuses and provides documentation for larger organizations like Americas Watch and Amnesty International. This past December Nohemy visited the U.S. for 13 days and received an award from Americas Watch for her human rights work. She donated the prize money to her human rights committee.
When Amnesty International visited Villavicencio last fall; the chair of the human rights committee could not attend the meeting because his office was surrounded by sicarios (hired assassins). A lawyer and head of the local state-licensed liquor business, he is a man whose life has been threatened numerous times. "They've made it clear they're going to kill him," said Nohemy. "He's living by a miracle. We made arrangements to get him out of the country, but he decided to stay. |If they kill me, they're going to kill me,' he said; |I may as well die for something worthwhile.'"
Many have died or disappeared in Villavicencio, which is in the center of a region where paramilitary activity and armed-forces repression are most intense. Delio Vargas, a member of the Villavicencio human rights committee and a local political leader, disappeared about a year ago just a block from the parish center where Nohemy works. "It's kind of strange, like a nightmare, when people just disappear," commented one of the Canadian nuns at the parish. "He was a neighbor of ours." Vargas was active with the Patriotic Union (UP), a leftist political party which has lost more than 2,100 members since its inception in 1985, including a presidential candidate and many mayors. In 1988, when Colombia's mayors began to be elected by popular vote, the UP won 16 mayoral positions. Since then, it appears that a systematic campaign has been waged to exterminate the UP from the eastern plains area. …